American Horror Story: Freak Show
“Monsters Among Us”
October 8, 2014
1952, Jupiter Florida
“Dear Diary: It’s September 3, 1952, and everything sucks. I HATE MY LIFE. Ugh. Seriously, though. Signed, Dot.”
“Dear Diary: It’s September 3, 1952, and everything is SUPERAWESOME! HOORAY MY LIFE THIS IS THE VERY BEST! PINK! YASSSSS, GAGA, YASSSSS. Love, Bette.”
But before we get to all that…
In Jupiter, Florida, a milk man arrives at a farm house to make his delivery because we are in 1952 and that was a thing that people did then. I don’t know, something about not having refrigerators, I think, be grateful you’re living in the 21st century, kids. However, when Milk Man arrives at the Tattler house, he notices that yesterday’s delivery is still on the front porch which alarms him. Milk Man is a braver soul than your trusty blogger, and makes his way inside to check on Mrs. Tattler, whom he finds under the dining room table in a pool of her own blood. WELP, TIME TO GO! says your trusty blogger. But as noted, Milk Man is made of sterner stuff, and so armed with a rolling pin, he makes his way upstairs where he flings open a closet door and begins screaming his fool head off like he’s some cowardly freelance television blogger.
We are suddenly being raced down a hospital corridor on a gurney, which is rushed into an emergency room without us. And whatever was on that gurney was so upsetting, a nurse runs back out to vomit in a nearby trashcan. Later, Dr. Exposition goes over a set of X-rays, dictating to a shocked nurse (but I don’t think it’s Nurse Upchuck) that the subject has one bladder, three kidneys, four lungs and two hearts with a shared circulatory system. This alarms Nurse Alarmed.
Out in the hallway, Nurse Exposition explains to sassy candy striper Meryl Streep Jr. who sassily wears sassy red lipstick that the “unfortunate creature” was found at the Tattler crime scene, and they believe it might be related to the victim. Meryl Streep Jr. sasses that she’d have drowned it in a bathtub had she given birth to it. Enter Jessica Lange, whom we will be calling “Elsa Mars” this season, and Elsa Mars’ amazing monkey fur coat and devil-faced handbag that I need NOW. GIMME. (Well, not the monkey fur, I don’t really have any use for a monkey fur coat in the Gulf South, and also, too, leave those poor monkeys alone, but I am going to need that bag post-haste. LISTEN UP, FX: This is a prime merchandizing opportunity. Cut it with the crying nun mugs [who, had you been clever, you would have designed them so that the black tears appeared when you added hot liquid to the cup. MISSED OPPORTUNITY] and start selling these devil-head bags. I’ll be your first customer, for serious.) Elsa offers Meryl Streep, Jr. a drag off her cigarette and asks vat is in zee hospital room with zee police officer posted at zee door, she heard it vas somezing “extraordinary.” Soon enough, Elsa is offering Meryl Streep Jr. a card for Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, whose secrets she can only learn by entering. And that’s how Elsa ended up wearing Meryl Streep Jr.’s candy stripes and wheeling a cart full of magazines and newspapers past the police officer posted at the hospital room door.
Inside the hospital room, Elsa pulls back the bed curtain to reveal a sleeping two-headed Sarah Paulson. Cue the theremin!
Elsa wakes the sisters, and offers them balloons and a change of clothes for when they leave the hospital. One Sarah Paulson has a suspicion which she shares telepathically with Other Sarah Paulson, but neither respond to Elsa Mars and her questioning, until Elsa asks which one of zem reads zee Hollyvood tabloids. When left-headed Sarah Paulson, whose name is Bette, chirps that Betty Grable is her favorite, Elsa realizes she has an in with the twins, and begins asking VERY PERSONAL QUESTIONS: Have either of zem ever had ze boyfriend? Has anyone … um … enjoyed their how do you say, strudel? If zey are ze virgins, do zey at least, you know, take care of zemselves? Bette burbles that she does, but Little Miss Sourpants over here to her right, Dot, she tries to pretend it doesn’t happen because she has all sorts of sexual hangups. Dot screams at her sister to shut her slutty mouth, which is Elsa’s cue to leave. Auf Wiedersehen, ladies!
Elsewhere, some randy teenagers are making out next to a retention pond, as randy teenagers are wont to do, when the boy teenager decides to get something out of his car, leaving the girl teenager by herself, because this is a horror series. Teenage Girl is immediately approached by a Murder Clown who had been hiding in the retention pond bushes — Murder Clowns’ natural habitat — and she does not go running off, screaming in terror. Instead, she accepts some flowers from Murder Clown, and then just stands there like a dumb dummy as he begins pulling out a set of
juggling pins bludgeoning clubs with which to bludgeon her. Teenage Boy returns to the scene, and Teenage Girl is all, “Look, it’s the Murder Clown you hired to juggle for us here by the retention pond!” because that sounds right. That just makes good sense. And then Murder Clown bludgeons the two of them with his bludgeoning clubs, on account of the whole MURDER CLOWN THING. Darwin Award Winners, these two. But the bludgeoning didn’t actually kill either of them, and when Teenage Girl awakens, she finds Murder Clown viciously murdering Teenage Boy to death. MURDER MURDER MURDER. Finally, FINALLY, she decides that perhaps she should run away from Murder Clown. It doesn’t go well for her.
Elsa and that fabulous bag of hers grabs a bite at the Camellia Grill, which is a long way from Jupiter, Florida, but worth it. Order the pecan pie when you go there — they throw it onto the grill where they have been frying bacon all day and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. As Elsa cuts out newspaper items for her Marlene Dietrich burn book, she happens to notice that Evan Peters is on the other side of the grill, decked out in his Marlon Brando drag, flirting with a waitress, and whom we are calling “Jimmy” this time around. Elsa is NOT AMUSED, and she scolds him to get back to verk. Jimmy, however, exposits that they aren’t going to have a place to work much longer, as their landlord is about to throw them off the property. WAVEY FLASHBACK WAVEY THINGS HERE.
At the circus, Elsa and her teensy Indian assistant, Ma Petite, are doing Elsa’s laundry when the landlord comes to deliver the bad news: She and the freaks gots to go, they’re upsetting the Missus, and also, too, they haven’t paid their rent. “Instead,” Elsa suggests, “how about vee go into my tent and examine ze Peach Schnapps and my underzings.”
WAVEY FLASHBACK WAVEY THINGS HERE. And that’s how the circus managed to eek out another month on the farm. Elsa reminds Jimmy that the waitress vould be a lot less interested in him if she knew about his deformities, ya? Does he remember vat they do to zee freaks? Vit the asylums and zee prisons? He does not vant that for his mudder, no? Jimmy insists that the show is over, but Elsa assures him that she has a plan, and with that, the pair leave the Camellia Grill without paying because “it’s on zee house, stars never pay.”
Later, at a Tupperware party, uptight 50s housewives are exchanging war stories about their non-existent sex lives when one woman emerges from the back of the house, adjusting her clothes and looking rather … pleased with herself if you catch my drift and I know you do. It’s Lady in Yellow’s turn, and she makes her way to a back bedroom where Jimmy and his lobster hands are waiting to … um … lobster her.
And thousands of Lobsterhand fetishes are thus born all over this country, because you people are weirdos about Evan Peters.
Elsa swings by the hospital to visit the twins and ask them about their mother’s murder. So how did that go again? Dot explains that it was a robbery gone bad, but then Bette adds all sorts of details about a fedora and Aqua Velva and her mother was strangled with her necklace as she did her needlepoint. Elsa is all, “Nice try, fraulein, but zat is zee plot of Gaslight. You’ll need anozer story for zee police officers, ya?”
In some house somewhere, a man gets out of bed at the sound of a tea kettle whistling in the kitchen, because he doesn’t know that he’s in a horror series and he should call the police and GET OUT OF THE HOUSE NOW. And that’s when Murder Clown sneaks up behind him and murders him. Murder Clown then murders Man’s wife in her bed, before going into Man’s son’s bedroom to horrifyingly leer over him.
But Murder Clown doesn’t murder the boy. Instead, Murder Clown is keeping the boy in a van down by the river, along with Teenage Girl, both of them in cages. Murder Clown pays them a visit, trying to amuse them with a toy clown, some filthy scarves, a rattle, the scariest balloon animal ever. But when Boy recoils from his efforts, Murder Clown loses his cool and begins violently hurling balls at their cages. Best summer camp ever!
After hearing a radio report that Mrs. Tattler’s murder is being tied to Murder Clown’s murders, Dot and Bette decide it’s time to pack it up and get out of town. Elsa finds them at the farm house gathering their things and is all, “Zee murder, you did zee murder of your mudder, ya?” WAVEY FLASHBACK WAVEY THINGS HERE.
Basically, Bette wanted to go see a movie in the theater, and their mother was all, “Nope.” And Bette was all, “YOU CAN’T KEEP US ON THIS FARM FOREVER,” and her mother was like, “I CAN TRY.” And then Bette stabbed her to death. Then, later, Dot stabbed Bette, for reasons. But she didn’t kill her, the end.
WAVEY FLASHBACK WAVEY THINGS HERE. But Elsa’s got a plan! They can come live with her at the carnival, cool? Cool!
And so they arrive at their new home and Dot and Bette are all, “BOO,” but also, “HOORAY!” But even sourpuss Dot feels a little tingly when Lobsterhands winks at her at her arrival. Later, Kathy Bates the Bearded Lady who we are calling “Ethel” which is too close to “Elsa,” honestly, forces the twins to eat something, admonishing them that they should be grateful for Elsa’s generosity. It seems Elsa saved Ethel from the drunk tank, reunited Ethel with her son, Jimmy, and turned her into a star. And now it’s their turn. Or at least I think that’s what she’s saying with that weirdly distracting accent that apparently is supposed to be Baltimorian.
Meanwhile, Jimmy worries to Elsa that the police are going to come sniffing around the twins, but Elsa is like, “Pfft. Vee vill just say zey have been here zee whole time, ya?” That’s sure to work! I’m certain no one will look into that very believable story!
Later Jimmy and this really tall lady (Amazon Eve) and this other guy (Paul the Illustrated Seal), hang new signs for the twins, only to have the bullies from Back to the Future drive by and throw bottles at them while shrieking “FREAKS!” Boy, those guys will be sorry when Jimmy invents the skateboard and rock and roll.
Inside the circus, Elsa is watching a home movie when Meryl Streep Jr. comes stumbling into the room, looking worse for wear, and yelling that about being drugged and “ravaged.” However, Elsa begs to differ, meine liebchen, the film says otherwise. And with growing horror, Meryl Streep Jr. realizes that the film Elsa is watching is some sort of carnival orgy that she is the star of. SHE WAS CONFUSED! Meryl Streep Jr. protests. But, again, Elsa disagrees. “No, you loved it. Zere is no one being ravaged or tortured zere. Just ein fraulein taking her own pleasure for the first time, ya?” Meryl Streep Jr. begins to admit that she did enjoy it …
… before remembering the consequences of such an admission and protesting that she’s going to tell on Elsa and her freaks. This leads Elsa to launch into a whole preachy soliloquy about how the Freaks are awesome and beautiful and real and the Normals have no souls and are the real monsters and full of depravity, which was the entire point of this shoehorned-in, unbelievable scene. OH MY LORD, WE GET IT, RYAN MURPHY, NOW PUT DOWN YOUR GIANT HAMFISTS, YOU’RE KNOCKING OVER THE SCENERY.
Ma Petite and Pepper interrupt
Ryan Murphy Elsa’s sermon to inform her that a rich man in a big car just bought all of tonight’s show’s seats, hooray! They’re saved!
Elsewhere, Jimmy and Ethel of the Unintelligible Accent (seriously, until I read that interview with Ryan Murphy, I assumed that her backstory was that she was an Amish woman who was kicked off the farm on account of her hirsuteness) discuss his Lobsterhanding gig, how TV has killed the carnie scene and whether or not they should just buy a farm and live off the land (yes, probably, you’re more likely to survive the year if you get out of the freak show business now before Murder Clown comes to get you). Ethel is not one for the farming life, however, and encourages her son to make nice with the new stars of the show, Dot and Bette. But no flipper action, if he knows what she means and WE ALL DO. STOP. GROSS.
As Jimmy leaves his tent, he sees a man enter the twins’ and he heads over to investigate. There he finds that the strange man is a police officer, here to arrest the “monsters” for their mother’s murder. The name-calling upsets Jimmy, who whistles for some backup, and the tent is suddenly filled with other sideshow performers. When Office Insensitive calls them “freaks,” Jimmy snaps and slices his throat with a straight razor which is Not OK.
But the show must go on! And so the richie rich who bought out the show, Dandy Mott and his mother
Frances Conroy Gloria, plop themselves down in the audience and impatiently wait for the show to go on. I’M BORED, Dandy whines. GIVE ME YOUR SEAT, MOTHER, he demands. He’s a treat.
Finally, Ethel emerges on stage and introduces the show, giving Dandy and Gloria glimpses of the performers, and promising that Dandy and Gloria are about to bear witness to the bizarre, the strange, the weird, from untamed jungles to the dark continent of India, and for the first time ever, the Siamese Sisters. BUT FIRST, here’s Elsa singing “Life on Mars” by a precocious 5-year-old David Bowie.
All of the yeps. So good.
But Dandy and his mother are not fans of glam-rock, and sneak off during the performance to try to purchase Dot and Bette, for $5,000, $10,000 … $15,000. Elsa refuses their offers, they’re her headliners (GET IT? HEADLINERS? Good pun. High five.), and she invites the sisters to decide for themselves. “We’re staying here,” Dot announces. “This is our home,” Bette adds. With that, Gloria demands that Dandy take her home so she can take a nice hot bath and wash away Elsa’s “caterwauling.”
Hey, what’s going on outside the carnival tent? Just a Murder Clown is chilling on the carousel? That’s cool. Totally cool. Not upsetting at all.
That night, Jimmy leads the rest of the circus (sans Elsa and Ethel) out to the woods where he delivers a big rousing speech about how people judge them and they need a place to be safe and they have to rise up and take what they need and they’re all tired of being treated like monsters and in conclusion, that’s why it’s OK they killed a cop just for doing his job. Now they have to destroy the body and chop it into little bits. CHOP. CHOP. CHOP. And all the while Murder Clown watches from the bushes.
Finally, Ethel brings Elsa some dinner in her tent, where Elsa confesses zat she did not bring Dot and Bette to zee carnival to save zem, but instead to bring people in to vatch her mangle some of pop music’s greatest hits in ein sad attempt to become ein star. Ethel unconvincingly assures Elsa that it’s not too late for her to become a big celebrity. It happens all the time for 60-something year old German women who run freak shows out in the backwaters of Florida. With that, Ethel leaves Elsa alone to unwind with a little “Auf Wiedersehen,” and to take of her prosthetic legs so as to allow her knee stumps to breathe a little.
Before we begin, here is a video of a two-week old bunny taking a bath for the first time to help you recover from all that Twisty the Murder Clown.
There, don’t you feel better?
So the anthological nature of American Horror Story makes it a series that you can love one season and hate the next. And from my very non-scientific studies, it seems that one’s feelings about season two, Asylum, and season three, Coven, are fairly mutually exclusive: if you loved Asylum, you probably didn’t care much for Coven, and if you loved Coven, you really didn’t like Asylum. To that end, I should be honest with you, and admit that I loathed Asylum (with the caveat that I thought the finale was brilliantly done), and I adored Coven.
Asylum spent an entire season trying to cram as many scary and disturbing things into the story (zombies! serial killers! false imprisonment! Nazis! satanic possession! breast-feeding fetishes! aliens! ALIENS. WHY ALIENS?), all the while Ryan Murphy worked out his own issues with the Catholic church and tried to make some grand social message about …. how bad psychiatric wards were in the 1960s? I guess? Coven, in contrast, felt stripped down and focused. Yes, there were zombies and minotaurs, but those plot points were tied naturally to the larger story about this one coven and their search for leadership and survival. It wasn’t without its own sometimes heavy-handed messaging, mostly about feminism and ageism, but these themes were explored with humor and style and felt relevant.
And so, it was with concern that I read many interviews with Ryan Murphy and others stressing — promising, even — that Freak Show was going to be more Asylum than Coven. They assured fans that this season would be scary again, which is certainly welcome news. After all, what’s the point of a horror series that no one finds particularly scary? But I worried the theme and these issues of discrimination and ostracization that are naturally built into a story about carnival freaks would offer Murphy and his writers too many opportunities to preach at us a bunch of tired clichés about respecting differences, just as he had used Asylum to yell at us about how easy it is to abuse power. Or something. I don’t even know what he was really trying to say, all I know is that at the end of Asylum, I felt like I had been scolded for a solid three months.
But I am happy to report that after this, the first 90 minutes of Freak Show, I am cautiously optimistic about this season of American Horror Story. Visually, it is stunning. The set design, the costuming, the cinematography and framing of the shots, all of it is gorgeous and evokes a very specific time and place. The characters, while not quite as hilariously campy as the witches of Coven (no one will ever be as campy as Fiona Goode and Myrtle Snow, and I just have to come to terms with that) are still drawn with pretty broad strokes. Elsa in her desperation for attention and adoration, is something of a shadow of Fiona, some of the glamour but none of the bite. Sarah Paulson’s dual performance as Dot and Bette is fascinating and believable. Kathy Bates has never met a role that she didn’t seem born to play and Ethel is no exception. Despite that distracting accent, Bates fits into Ethel’s beard like she’s been wearing it her entire life.
That’s not to say that this episode did not have its preachy moments. Jimmy and Elsa both deliver big, grandstanding soliloquies outlining the whole “normal people are the real monsters” thesis. Hopefully, Murphy and his writers will get the impulse to beat us over the head with such proselytizing out of their system soon, because it’s just too obvious. That said, I was pleased that the writers made two very important storytelling decisions: 1. they introduced the performers as real people long before we actually saw them in the freak show where they are reduced to objects and 2. they did not make the carnival performers either weak or innocent. The antagonists with whom we are supposed to identify are murderers. They kill almost as many people as the Murder Clown does in this first episode. Jimmy and Bette (and Dot to a lesser degree) most certainly have blood on their hands, and they don’t regret a thing. It would have been easy, simpler even, to make them victims or pure, but by having them turn violent, to have them lash out in anger at being treated as monsters humanizes them even more. And that’s the kind of nuance I hope the writers continue to explore this season.
Sidenote: this story of “freaks” seeking revenge on those who mistreat them is a nod to the classic 1932 film, Freaks. In the controversial movie, a beautiful trapeze artist marries a little person from the side show with the intention of poisoning him and taking his sizable inheritance. When the rest of the side show performers discover her true intentions, they avenge their friend. (You can watch the entire movie here, and you should in preparation for this season.) Interestingly, like the 1932 film, American Horror Story has cast real people with differences that 60 years ago would have left them with few choices in life, other than something like being a performer in a side show act. It’s a bold decision, and I might question pretty much any other showrunner’s motivations, and whether or not they chose to use these individuals for the easy shock factor. But Ryan Murphy has, perhaps more than any other television producer that I can think of, always identified with outsider characters, the freaks, if you will, and he seems to be going out of his way to make them full-fledged characters, not just things to be gawked at.
Because I have yammered on quite long enough, I’ll finish this up with a few quick notes on symbolism and imagery in this episode. Murphy does not use a lot of metaphoric imagery in his series, so I don’t want to overstate it, or spend too much time or effort overthinking things. But I couldn’t help but notice the repeated use of door symbolism: in the Tattler house, in the hospital, at the “Tupperware” party, and obviously at the carnival. Doors represent the dividing line between two separate states of being, between one world and another, between ignorance and knowledge. By passing through certain thresholds, by going through certain doors, we are changed. Thus, the doorway imagery in this episode: it represents Dot and Bette’s entering into this new life with the carnival, where they are enjoying a certain freedom, they have been initiated into a new group, a new family, but it is also a loss of a certain innocence. The doors also represent a new era for the carnival itself; by bringing Dot and Bette into their tent, they could be breathing new life into the show, or it may be the final act that closes the door on the carnival world altogether. Finally, the doors represent the beginning of this journey that we are all taking with this story. As the audience, we’ve crossed the threshold and we’ve gazed upon great sights and great horrors. What you’ve seen, you can not unsee, and there is no turning back.
Until the next episode, enjoy the original video for David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” which American Horror Story clearly paid homage to in Elsa Mars’ costuming and makeup. Quite brilliant. And in the meantime, I’m going to spend entirely too much time wondering why her name is Elsa “Mars,” whether it has anything to do with the Roman god, or the town of “Jupiter,” or if they just decided to name her Mars as a clever nod to this song:
American Horror Story: Freak Show aired on FX.
This post originally appeared on the Hearst site Tubular.